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Embracing "Strategic Clarity" on Taiwan: the Key to Holding the Chinese Invasion at Bay

In the face of an increasingly bellicose China buttressed by its mighty economic and military strengths, Washington’s “strategic ambiguity” has become insufficient to pre-empt China’s ambitions. A shift towards "strategic clarity" could pave the way to deter Chinese aggression in the region, provided it remains subtle and is carefully managed.

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Article byPangying Peng
October 28, 2022

Biden’s latest re-articulation of his commitment to defend Taiwan on CBS’ 60 Minutes reflects the gradual shift of Washington’s Taiwan policy from ambiguity to clarity. When asked if the U.S. forces will defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion, he replied “Yes, if there is an unprecedented attack.” These remarks no longer appear misspoken, careless or ill-prepared, and it is far-fetched to claim that he was not in a clear-headed state when asked the question about Taiwan, because this was his fourth time making such a statement since he took office.

This shift towards clarity echoes the solid bi-partisan consensus to support Taiwan in the Congress that has developed in recent years. While it can be viewed as a natural development for a democratic government to act in accordance with public opinions, it is also a strategic step for the U.S. as its foremost policy goal for the Taiwan Strait is to forestall any occurrence of war. And this goal has remained unaltered.

The policy that has succeeded in maintaining the stability in the Taiwan Strait over the past 40 years is known as “strategic ambiguity.” When the U.S. established official relations with Communist China in 1979, it instituted the “Taiwan Relations Act” (“TRA”) to undergird its continued security support for Taiwan, because China has never renounced the use of force to annex its so-called “renegade province.” The purpose, as the TRA lays out, is to “enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capacity” and maintain the US’s capacity “to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security of Taiwan.” Equally important, Reagan’s “Six Assurances” to Taiwan—made in 1982 and de-classified in 2020—promised that the arms sales to Taiwan would endure. These commitments have been the lynchpin of deterring the People’s Liberation Army (“PLA”) from traversing the Taiwan strait.

Nonetheless, the Act does not guarantee direct US military involvement in case China attacks Taiwan, nor would any of the previous US presidents officially manifest America’s commitment to defend Taiwan. Therefore, the intended ambiguity also dissuades Taiwan from seeking de jure independence—namely, amending its constitution and revising its official name to "Republic of Taiwan"—an action that could provoke China’s immediate invasion and compel the U.S. to engage in a military conflict with the PLA. The strategy has prevented each side from unilaterally changing the status quo, laying the foundation for the four-decade stability of the Indo-Pacific.

In the face of an increasingly bellicose China buttressed by its mighty economic and military strengths, Washington’s “strategic ambiguity” has become insufficient to pre-empt China’s ambitions. By responding with mounting sabre-rattling against Taiwan, Beijing is overbearingly making every outreach from a third country towards the island a line in the sand. These engagements with Taiwan, from the Czech Senate President Milos Vystrcil’s visit to Taiwan to the opening of the Taiwan Representative Office in Lithuania, or the regular Congressional visits that culminated with Pelosi’s recent trip, have all been met with China’s aggression. Progressively, China does not scruple to demonstrate its intention to challenge the status quo by force. As Xi believes in the decline of the US and the “reunification” with Taiwan as vocation for the Chinese national rejuvenation, the “strategic ambiguity” could be deciphered as inconsistency and indecision about defending Taiwan.

Biden’s repeated statements about Taiwan have demonstrated the United States’ gradual departure from strategic ambiguity. The US has come to terms with the fact that the “risen” China is not going to be a responsible stakeholder in the Taiwan Strait. China’s rise as a discontented game-changer coveting the conquest of Taiwan warrants a change of the U.S. policy. In addition to ideologically viewing Taiwan as one successful example of prosperity and democracy by adopting the American model, the U.S.’s technological dependency on Taiwan’s semiconductor industry has also made it unthinkable not to defend the country in case China launches an unprecedented attack.

The heading towards clear commitment to defend Taiwan reveals that the Congress and the White House no longer want to surreptitiously engage with Taiwan so as not to upset a bully. Above all, losing Taiwan would signal not only the US withdrawal from the Indo-Pacific security system and the loss of its credibility to the allies in the region, it may also augur the crumbling of its global technological dominance and the dollar system. Worst, it signifies that democracy loses to autocracy.

The clarity on Taiwan needs to be strategic, not impetuous. The “strategic clarity” should aim to deter Xi from being adventurous when his party faces a legitimacy crisis domestically. It is still in the US’s greatest interest to avert a military conflict in the Taiwan Strait that could easily escalate to a third World War. As a result, the shift in US policy should remain subtle and be carefully managed so as not to offer any excuse for China to resort to “the most extreme option”. Presenting the shift in a series of impromptu high-level remarks could be the way to navigate it, especially when Beijing is normalizing military operations around Taiwan.

These remarks can in effect transition from strategic ambiguity to the clarity that strongly reveals US intent to intervene militarily without any formal commitment. Additionally, instead of seeking immediate breakthroughs by the Taiwan Policy Act on paper (as ambitions may well be discounted in the Congressional negotiations), or taking any position on Taiwan’s de jure independence, the US should continue engaging in immediate military manoeuvres around Taiwan and normalize them in response to China’s regular aggression. This can prove that the U.S. is always ready to turn its words into deeds.

DISCLAIMER: All views expressed are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent that of the IWAB platform.